Home PageBlogAn Interview with Jeffrey K. Zeig: On Creativity in Therapy

By Vladimir Zelinka

Estimated Reading Time: 12 minutes, 53 seconds 

Vladimir Zelinka: Could you please talk about the role creativity plays in your therapy?

Jeff Zeig: I am creative in my therapy because I want my patients to be creatively empowered. If you are living creatively, then you are leading a fulfilling life with meaning.

The therapist can be in a creative state to mirror, model, and demonstrate that therapy becomes a reference experience for creative living. A medicalized procedure follows an algorithmic path to achieve a stated goal. But therapy is a heuristic process, a creative innovation for being a better person.

VZ: How did you learn to access and use this skill?

JZ: You become creative by not striving for it. If you strive, you create a bind. Creativity must have a dissociative quality like hypnosis must have a dissociative quality. Creativity is something that “just happens.” Creativity is a by-product, for example, of being in a utilization state. It was this state that Milton Erickson most often inhabited. He was ready to constructively respond to whatever existed in the totality of the therapy situation. If you are in a utilization state, creativity is a by-product, just like happiness is a by-product of living meaningfully. If you target being creative, you create a “be spontaneous” bind.

VZ: What about the trance of the therapist? Is it something that may increase a therapist’s creativity? And, if so, could you tell me how?

JZ: There are several ways of looking at that. One way is that the therapist goes into a highly focused external trance, trying to stimulate empowerment in the client, who goes into an internal trance. Another way of looking at it is that the therapist does not merely offer techniques, but rather assumes a state. For example, in modeling Milton Erickson, one could say that the state of the therapist is the progenitor of the technique. Primarily, most clinicians think in a medicalized way — that the job of the clinician is to supply technique. In most medical practices, technique comes first. You hear the patient’s complaint; you get the patient’s history; you do an examination; you order tests; you come up with the treatment plan; and you then decide what medicine to use.

In a social intervention, such as psychotherapy, we can focus on the state of the communicator. My interest is in therapists’ states — what state the therapist CAN enter.

Techniques can emerge from the state the therapist inhabits. The states that I find most helpful in therapy include utilization, being strategic, being evocative, being precise, and orienting toward.

I just wrote a book on evocative psychotherapy. It is primarily about developing therapeutic states.

If you want a client to be connected, to be loving, to be interested, to responsible, to be motivated, and/or to be creative, you need to use evocative communication. The same thing could be said about humor. If you want someone to enter the state of being humorous, and to subsequently laugh, you need to be evocative. Telling a joke is one way to do this. A joke would be the induction that elicits laughter. Another form of evocative communication is being metaphoric. Shakespeare was being metaphoric in “Romeo and Juliette,” when he wrote: “…what light through yonder window breaks? It is the East and Juliette is the sun.” If you asked 100 people what is meant by “Juliette is the sun,” you may get 100 different answers. But most people would agree that Romeo thinks Juliette is the most important thing in the world. Now Shakespeare most likely did not plan his metaphoric technique. Rather, he was in a state of being metaphoric and metaphors flowed onto the page.

The use of metaphor is evocative, and if you want your client to have a conceptual realization, using metaphor trumps offering didactic information. Information is great if you want to send a man to the moon, but if you want someone to experience love, all the information in the world won’t help. For example, offering someone 10 reasons why they should love you will not elicit a state of love, which must be elicited through an evocative experience.

Hypnosis is the foundation of experiential psychotherapy. You don’t use hypnosis to impart information. You use hypnosis to give people a transformative experience that demonstrates that he or she can change his or her state. And we can do this in the same way that a good writer embellishes a concept to make it come alive. A therapist could say: “Go deeply into trance” or “Go deeper, deeper, and deeper”; and although repetition would be more effective, using a simile or a metaphor makes the concept come alive. That’s what writers do. A novelist could write: “The mountains rose from the desert, just like the wildflowers in springtime.” If a therapist wants to train herself to become metaphoric, she could start by using analogies. For example, she might say, “And you can feel yourself going deeper, just like…” and then say whatever comes to mind, i.e., “…just like you are entering a mine searching for gold.” And the word “mine,” could be misinterpreted as the word “mind,” making it even more evocative. The use of simile adds evocative power to the concept. If you practice enough, eventually the state of being metaphoric moves from your procedural memory to your working memory, and the state becomes automatic. You can be metaphoric without conscious deliberation.

VZ: Let’s talk about your book Psychoaerobics®. In it, you write: “Create the dots, don’t connect them.” Could you please explain this statement?

JZ: When we tell a child a story that has a lesson or a moral, we often feel compelled to explain. For example, we could tell a child the well-loved story about the race between the rabbit and the turtle, and then at the end of we might say: “Slow and steady wins the race.” But we don’t need to do that for adults, nor should we, especially in therapy.

Artists do not connect the dots for us. Instead, artists orient us toward a realization. For example, in a movie, the director might use a scene in which an airplane is moving from left to right, and the moviegoer will intuitively know that the character is leaving. But if the plane is moving from right to left, this signifies that the character is returning. The psychologist and philosopher, William James, called this “awakening representations.” Art awakens representations. Another example is Picasso’s painting, “Guernica.” Guernica does not have a subtitle that reads: “The Horrors of War.” Picasso wanted to show us how he felt about war, not tell us, so he created an evocative experience for us to realize that war is horrible. Here’s another example: What’s the difference between heaven and hell?

VZ: There are a lot of differences.

JZ: The difference between heaven and hell is that in heaven they tell jokes, in hell, they explain them. If you explain something, it loses its power.

VZ: Does this mean that in order to be a good therapist one needs to limit the expression of his or her creativity for the patient’s own creativity to surface?

JZ: The therapist models being in a creative state. Where there are less limitations, there are more possibilities. Psychological problems stem from a person believing that he or she has limitations. The patient believes that he does not have the resources to change or to cope. When a therapist models utilization and creativity, the therapist is demonstrating, in the moment, that the patient does not need to feel limited; that there are possibilities. By demonstrating this, the therapist paves the way for the client to activate in an empowering way; to cope with change and live in adaptive harmony with the current environment, or in harmony with what the situation demands. The therapist needs to pull back a bit so that the client can act as an agent on his own behalf.

From the perspective of the observer, it seems as if the hypnotist is active in hypnosis and the patient is passive. However, everything the hypnotist does should be in the service of activating the client. The activation should be elicited, not induced.

In my book Psychoaerobics®, I provide a different model of therapist development. Most therapists, including me, were trained to learn with the left hemisphere. I had to learn techniques, research, and theories. But I believe that it is more helpful if therapists model actors and learn with the right hemisphere, the way an actor learns improvisation. In Psychoaerobics®, I present a system that I created based on 60 exercises that can be done mostly in groups. The idea is for therapists to develop effective therapist states. I also offer 10 warm-up exercises for therapists in any discipline to develop generic states. And, there are 50 exercises with multiple variations about how to sequentially and strategically develop Ericksonian states. The exercises are designed to be repeatedly practiced. It is a systematic training program based on a bottom-up approach. The exercises can be modified in experiential therapy with patients, or they can be used with individuals, couples, children, and families — anytime you need to be evocative and experiential in psychotherapy.

VZ: You mentioned that Milton Erickson was often in a state of utilization. Could you please tell us the steps for entering this state?

JZ: Utilization is the state in which the therapist is response ready, ready to constructively respond to whatever exists in the totality of the situation. At an early age, Milton Erickson learned utilization from his parents. He grew up in a three-walled dirt floor cabin in the wilderness of Nevada where supplies only came once a month. Therefore, through his parents, he learned to utilize everything. Erickson made this a way of life. Erickson’s children used to bring little pencil nubs home from school so that their father, who had an apparatus made to hold the pencil nubs, could write papers with them. Erickson lived utilization; it was not just a technique for psychotherapy.

Milton Erickson contributed 100’s of cases to the literature of psychotherapy, more than any therapist in history –and every one of them is based in utilization. Erickson even utilized his own infirmaries in his therapy.

Since I met Erickson more than 45 years ago, I have made a deliberate effort to ground myself in utilization. This is easier said than done. I am still developing my utilization state.

In traditional hypnosis, utilization can be found. A therapist could say: “With every breath you take, and with every sound you hear, you will go deeper and deeper.” The therapist is utilizing something from the environment and something from the client.

Utilization was the foundation of Erickson’s therapy. Steven de Shazer said, “Utilization is the foundation of solutions.” A therapist can always find something to utilize in an induction.

Erickson once had a case where a psychotic patient claimed that he was Jesus Christ and he tried to convert everyone to Christianity. Erickson said to the patient, “Sir, I understand you have experience as a carpenter.” The patient replied, “Yes my son.” Erickson said, “Then can you help us in the woodworking shop?” And with that, Erickson walked with the patient down to the hospital’s wood-working shop and the man went to work. Erickson utilized the metaphor that Christ was a carpenter. Erickson was not about offering information, but rather about giving an experience, and he often utilized something in the situation. He elicited resources to empower the patient.

How does a therapist know if he or she is in a state of utilization? Well, we don’t necessarily pay attention to the fact that we often seamlessly transition from one state to the next throughout our day. But we can pay attention to the difference in our cognition, behavior, affect, posture, perception, proximity to the person we are speaking with and the relationship, and to our tempo of speech, and direction of speech. In paying attention, we will have a better idea of what state we are in. We could identify cues that indicate we are in the state of utilization. We transition from state to state so many times that we allow the situation to create those things inside ourselves, and of course, we underemphasize the contextual determinants of emotions and the contextual determinants of states.

If you want to feel faithful you might say to yourself: “I am going to pray so that I feel faithful.” But if you go to Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome, you might feel faithful in a much more vibrant way, because of the contextual determinants of behavior. The same thing with feeling a sense of wonder. A trip to the Grand Canyon, or some other wonder of the world, will most likely give you a sense of wonder.

We spend a lot of our time responding without intention and have the delusion that most of our behaviors are intentional. But social psychology demonstrates that this not the case. We are most often on autopilot.

VZ: If the utilization of a patient’s unique characteristics is so important in order to promote a therapy, what do you think about the research data on hypnosis obtained through standardized protocols?

JZ: In order to get my Ph.D., I had to do standardized protocols — sorting out high and low hypnotic subjects. I used the Stanford Hypnotic Susceptibility Scale (SHSS) to establish two populations: low hypnotizables and highly hypnotizables.

If you want to research love, you can do an MRI on someone who says they are in love and find an area of their brain that will light up. But if you want to elicit love, using a standardized protocol is not going to be successful.

There has been important scientific research on what is essential to hypnosis. Some posit that it’s relaxation, others focused attention; some say that it is dissociation; some believe that it is responsiveness; while others maintain that it’s contextual. Professionals argue about the essential nature of hypnosis, so it is important to have research focused with a tight lens. We also need phenomenological data to understand hypnosis. Researchers often focus on if someone is hypnotizable or not. But more important is building a person’s implicit responsiveness. Erickson worked on building covert responsiveness, no matter how hypnotizable the person was deemed — as if there was something that could improve and evolve during the hypnotic session to make the subject’s responses to minimal cues possible.

The hypnotic induction ends when the person responds to the meaning of the communication. The induction does not end when the script is over.

Some might say that self-hypnosis is like active imagination, mindfulness meditation, and autogenic training, but I maintain that hypnosis requires an interpersonal relationship and interpersonal responsiveness to the meaning of the communication. Research in social psychology demonstrates that people respond to situational determinants. The research also demonstrates that people respond without necessarily realizing the cue that led to the response, or even that they responded. This evidence did not exist when Erickson was practicing. But today we know that what Erickson did had validity.

VZ: What advice would you give a novice therapist who wants to increase his or her creativity?

JZ: There has been little research on creativity. In fact, only one percent of all research done has been on creativity. Csikszentmihalyi and Sternberg study creativity and I study creativity by observing artists. One of my projects has been to interview artists — directors, painters, and novelists — to try to understand something about the grammar of art.


This excerpt has been extracted from Volume 39, Issue No. 3 of The Milton H. Erickson Foundation Newsletter.

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